By Noura Erakat
The Nakba marks a momentous rupture in the history of Arab connection to the land of Palestine. The forcible, mass removal of native Palestinians in 1948 thus overwhelms the history, literature, activism, and memory regarding the Palestinian Question. To begin in 1948 is to narrate a story of collective loss, one that gives vivid expression to the collusion of state powers, the asymmetric capacities between industrialized and developing nations, the unyielding sway of nationalism, and to the remarkable expendability of certain human life.
While these expressive lessons are particular to Palestine and Palestinians, they are also plainly unexceptional. The question of Palestine is like so many other case studies of settler-colonialism, institutionalized racism, and state-led practices of systematic dehumanization. And so many other case studies are like Palestine in their modalities of repression and technologies of violent domination. If, indeed, there is no Palestinian exception, what does that freedom from anecdotal particularity afford us in the way of understanding the conflict and its possible solutions?
One productive approach is to try to understand how anti-blackness informs the conflict. Here I draw on the work of afro-pessimists who have theorized anti-blackness as an analytical framework with a focus on the afterlife of slavery in the New World. This framework informs how the nation-state comes to embody technologies of power, coercion, and violence that determine death and the possibilities of life. Scholar Rinaldo Walcott explains:
“What it means to be human is continually defined against Black people and Blackness….It is precisely by engaging the conditions of the invention of blackness, the ways in which its invention produces the conditions of unfreedom and the question of how those conditions produce various genres of the Human, genres that are continually defined against blackness, that any attempt to engage a decolonial project may avoid its own demise.”
This framework urges us to rethink Zionism so that it is not just a settler-colonial movement predicated on the forced removal and annihilation of the native, but also a nationalist movement predicated on the racialized tropes deployed against Jews of Europe. An anti-blackness framework also urges us to think about other communities, besides native Palestinians, that intersect with the category of “black.” People of African descent have long been in Palestine/Israel, and their presence cuts across dominant categories: there are Afro-Palestinians (predominantly Muslim), Ethiopian Israeli Jews (whose mass migration begins to achieve momentum in the mid-eighties), and recently-arrived asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea (both Muslim and Christian). Such provocations unsettle a stark native-settler binary and illuminate broader implications for anti-racist commitments within the Palestinian liberation struggle.
Israeli Jewish society features a stark socio-economic and racial hierarchy. It includes Western European Jews, African Jews, Middle Eastern Jews, and Russian Jews, as well as other social groups like non-Jewish foreign workers. The oppression these groups experience cuts across various intersecting axes of race, class, gender, national origin, as well as other distinctive markers. Palestinians, including citizens of Israel, do not represent the most extreme site of oppression in this social order; rather, they are outside it altogether. They constitute a baseline equivalent with social death because of the extreme institutional deprivation they endure, which denies them access to opportunities, movement, family, nationhood, land, livelihood, and security in the physical and metaphysical sense. Palestinian nationalism equips us to resist this dehumanizing framework by exposing the annihilationist logics of Zionist settler-colonization and demanding a restoration of indigenous sovereignty. It does not, however, adequately grapple with the racial logics that mediate Palestinian deprivation and Israeli socio-racial stratification.
Among liberal Zionists, the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is a matter of foreign policy, while racial discrimination, against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and African descendants, is a domestic issue. In a Palestinian nationalist framework, Afro-Israelis and asylum-seekers might be seen as settlers, even if relatively less privileged ones, and Israel’s violent exclusion of them demonstrates its constitutive race-based logics. But what is the connection, if any, between the exclusion and discrimination against these native and settler classes?
Borrowing from afro-pessimist works on the condition of being human, we may reconsider Zionism as a civilizational project that reifies the ineligibility of Jews for European whiteness even as it divests Palestinians of any material or metaphysical value. As a derivative of Enlightenment Europe, Zionist nationalism reproduced the polarized binaries of the superior, enlightened West and the inferior, primitive East. It claimed that Jews as a national entity belonged to the superior, enlightened West despite their geographical origins in the East, and sought to enlighten (read: colonize) its primitive peoples. Accordingly, Zionist ideology inferiorized the non-Western Jew, and aimed to civilize her by erasing her difference, just as Enlightenment Europe had sought to do with its Jewish population. It combated anti-Jewish bigotry by internalizing and reproducing it.
The nationalization of Judaism (Israel refuses to recognize an “Israeli” nationality, only a Jewish one, as confirmed by the Supreme Court in the Ornan case) nevertheless ascribed significant value to Eastern and African Jewish identity; they remained superior to the Palestinian native. Zionism consecrated Jewish nationality in law and strictly regulated its acquisition and the myriad entitlements that flow from it. Palestinians who lacked Jewish nationality were not eligible for rehabilitation, or whiteness, at all, and had to be removed, dispossessed, and/or contained. The Palestinian body, as a site of exploitation, dispossession, and precarity, lacks material value. The value of Jewish nationality, and, by extension, Israeli Whiteness, directly correlates to the deprivation of Palestinian land, presence, and nationhood. Structurally, therefore, the approximation of whiteness within Israel necessitates the ongoing deprivation of Palestinians. And the deprivation of Palestinians reproduces and reifies the logic constitutive of Israel’s racial hierarchal regime.
Settler-decolonization affords an opportunity for emancipation from the fundamental assumptions of white supremacy by addressing the very racial logics that presuppose Jewish inferiority to European Whiteness. Destruction of the colonial relation that facilitates systematic Palestinian deprivation should thus subvert those disfiguring oriental tropes that positioned Jews as outsiders in Europe and, later, as colonial masters in the Middle East. Such a movement aims not only to unsettle a native-settler relationship, but also to unsettle the system of stratified value measured against it. Under such a framework, Jews are able to resist, rather than embody, the racial logics that produced their exclusion within Europe and that continue to stratify Israeli society.
This is also a worthwhile inquiry in light of the resurgence of Black-Palestinian solidarity. It helps navigate the responsibilities that may inhere to the Palestinian movements claiming such solidarities. For example, without scrutinizing the modalities of anti-blackness, non-black Palestinians may risk reifying these institutionalized systems of dehumanization. Palestinian proximity to social death makes Palestinians the non-human, figurative black body in this moment in Israel/Palestine. However, unlike their Afro-Palestinian, Afro-Arab, Afro-Israeli, and African diaspora counterparts more generally, this status is contingent rather than global. Like the Eastern Jews who are eligible for modified whiteness within a Zionist schema, Palestinians view national sovereignty as means for their own aspirations to contingent whiteness. There is therefore an inherent risk within the Palestinian movement for settler-decolonization of reifying anti-blackness: in seeking to overthrow the yolk of Zionist settler-colonization without addressing the racist logics motivating its annihilationist assumptions, Palestinians risk restoring indigenous sovereignty and reproducing the same state structures predicated on dehumanizing a putative other. Not all settlers are the same. Removing the settler without combating the supremacist logics that facilitated her presence risks leaving those logics intact.
Mapping possible strategies and frameworks that address these risks is a critical task for the Palestinian movement. Worthwhile questions include what is the proper place of African Jewish-Israelis and African asylum-seekers in an anti-Zionist framework? What are the possibilities and limitations of coalition with Middle Eastern Jews? How does attention to or elision of Afro-Palestinian communities inform understandings of Palestinian liberation? These are all questions that help to guide our thinking beyond the Palestinian exception and to use the practice of Palestinian struggle and resistance as a platform for addressing liberation not just for a nation, but, more broadly, for humanity’s expendable populations.
For further reading: Noura Erakat, Whiteness as Property in Israel: Revival, Rehabilitation, and Removal, 31 Harv. J.Racial & Ethnic Just. 69 (2015).